Utrecht short-haul flight ban ‘will cut emissions by 15 per cent’

Staff will need express permission to fly less than 700km, but subsidies for higher train fees are also being scrapped

December 23, 2022
Source: iStock

Staff at Utrecht University will only be allowed to take short-haul flights in very exceptional circumstances from 2023, and are being encouraged to use their grant funding to cover the difference if trains cost more.

Managers at the Dutch institution have been instructed to only approve flights under 700km – equivalent to a trip from the Hague to Berlin – in exceptional circumstances, according to a memorandum from its executive council. At the same time a train travel fund of €5,000 (£4,400) per faculty has been discontinued.

Utrecht’s vice-president, Margot van der Starre, said that the university did not want to entrench the expectation that it would subsidise higher train travel costs, which she said should instead be borne as part of normal project funding. “We don’t want to make it too easy because we do a lot of externally funded research and I think it should be a common thing for the [funders to] pay for the train tickets,” she said.

Other universities that have tightened their policies on air travel are also trying to pass on extra train costs to external funders. Ghent University’s sustainability policy committee offers to take up the case with funders that do not accept the added expense, for example.

Ms van der Starre said other universities in the Netherlands are planning similar policy changes and the use of funding to limit flights seems to be catching on elsewhere. From December, the University of Neuchâtel will only reimburse the cost of flights if a train would take more than 10 hours, Swiss media reported.

With staff and student flights making up the bulk of many universities’ emissions, there is strong pressure on institutions to reduce air travel. In Sweden, Climate Students, a campaign group, has made air travel emissions one of the main measures in its sustainability ranking of universities, although this is partly due to statutory data reporting requirements.

“It's easy for us on the board to be so radical because the whole university is asking us to be radical, especially the university council, they want it to be very specific and very clear,” said Ms van der Starre, adding that reducing flights would cut institutional carbon dioxide emissions by 11 to 15 per cent. “It’s a quick win, basically,” she said.

While support for the prohibition may be broad, it is not universal. Ms van der Starre said that unusually, the heads of Utrecht’s seven faculties asked for the decision to come from higher up. “You always have staff members and sometimes senior staff members which are used to taking flights and think it’s quicker. It’s far more easy [for faculty heads] to convince them by saying, ‘It’s not my decision.’ So we played the role of the bad guy.”


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